SAMPS was previously Association of Commercial Professionals for Life Sciences (ACP-LS)

The Art of Moderating in the World of Life Science

April 22, 2013

"Moderating looks so easy and fun; you just have to talk to people." While it's often fun and conversational, moderating is by no means easy. It requires specific skills and training that lie more in the realm of art than (behavioral) science from which moderating originated. Skillfully applying the art of moderating can facilitate your work as life science commercial professionals, whether you're conducting market research, brainstorming new ideas, or interacting with clients to promote your products and services.

The art of moderating is fundamentally based upon an ability to create trust and build rapport with your audience. It requires unconditional positive regard (UPR) for them, regardless of your personal agenda, opinion, or point of view about the topic at hand. A successful moderator projects confidence and authority, balanced by warmth and accessibility. You must be flexible, able to think quickly and change direction as needed. Perhaps most importantly, the art of moderating necessitates a learned type of listening—active listening. This is where you make a conscious effort to hear not only the words that your audience is saying, but to understand the complete message and motivation being communicated.

Moderating for market research

Focus groups and other types of qualitative research are often top-of-mind when people think about moderating. If you're working with an outside vendor or moderating on your own, the success of your market research study will be inexorably linked to the moderator's effectiveness.

When it comes to moderating focus groups, for example, not only do you need to possess the above qualities, you must also know how to juggle: the research objectives, the client's interests, and the group dynamics playing out in real time. An artful moderator is prepared to manage a difficult participant or challenging situation that might arise. You must be armed with a structured guideline and questions, yet ready to go off script and take risks. When moderating market research, it's essential to possess the right instincts about how and when to probe for additional information, along with a toolbox of creative techniques to access more than superficial responses, especially with a science-based audience that typically operates from the brain's left side.

Consider the following research needs within the world of life science and some corresponding moderator tips:

Research need: Identify deep, emotion-based brand attributes for a drug discovery service provider.
Moderator tip: Use cards depicting archetypal characters to help participants represent the story and emotions evoked by the brand, which may be otherwise difficult to express in words.

em>Research need: Optimize client interaction along key touch points during clinical trials for a global central laboratory.

Moderator tip: Have participants engage in ideation sessions that map unmet needs and ideal expectations onto each major touch point along the commercial client/laboratory engagement.

Research need: Evaluate an advertising campaign among major depressive disorder patients for a top-tier pharmaceutical firm.
Moderator tip: Ascertain that rapport is strong from the outset and empathize without losing neutrality. Once comforted by moderator-facilitated intimacy and trust, participants can design mood boards depicting words, images, and messages that truly resonate and represent the experience of their condition.

Moderating for internal ideation

Applying the art of moderating also serves as an effective catalyst for internal innovation and idea generation. For some science-oriented personnel, it may be easier to leave ideation to the "creative types". But in this dynamic, competitive industry, it's critical that we all become, to some degree, creative. Conjure Albert Einstein: "To raise new questions, new possibilities, [and] to regard old problems from a new angle requires creative imagination and marks real advances in science."

The same techniques employed to elicit meaningful insights from research audiences will help stir up creativity among internal audiences, from R&D and operations teams to sales managers and senior executives. Your goals may be to brainstorm new ideas, product lines, or services; prioritize organizational goals and projects; address complex problems; empathize with customers' point of view, conduct stakeholder analyses; even envision an ideal future.

At your next team meeting, strategy session, or off-site gathering, enlist a person trained in the art of moderating as facilitator. First, this person must possess the art of rapport building and establish a safe place for creativity to happen. Then, depending upon the objective, he/she can pull from a catalog of "projective techniques" (creative activities that interrupt traditional moderator-to-participant conversation) or "serious games," and guide attendees to stretch beyond traditional, left-brain thinking. An effective moderator, as with focus groups, will listen without judgment, be ready to try something new on a moment's notice, and inspire participants to get in touch with perceptions, experiences, or emotions that lie beneath the surface. All the while, the moderator maintains a leadership role, eliciting meaningful insights while purposefully advancing the goal of the ideation session.

Moderator tip: Always begin ideations with an icebreaker to transition into creative thinking and provide the audience a mental mindset for the session you want to conduct. Examples range from playing an old-style game of "telephone" with a clear starting message to identifying an inspirational muse.

Moderator tip: To start brainstorming (whatever the topic), collect many spontaneous, uncensored ideas for a finite period of time. Some brainstorming activities include silent sticky-note writing/presentation in response to a specific question, using a ball toss for generating lightning rounds of ideas, listing ideas that "could get you fired," or improvisation to bring the voice of your customer or a specific task to life. Once time is up, the moderator helps organize, categorize, or prioritize the ideas into meaningful topics for pointed discussion.

Moderating for client meetings

By tapping into the art of moderating, you can also enhance the success of your client meetings and new business presentations. Think about the next client meeting as if it were a focus group, which means bringing along your artful moderating skills: UPR, rapport, empathy, flexibility, and active listening.

Active listening is critical when interacting with clients. This means paying careful attention to clients—putting yourself in their shoes, understanding the clients' needs and motivations, as well as assessing their body language and tone. Then you must be ready to ask probing questions or tailor the presentation to deliver maximum impact and resonance among that particular client. You may also want to consider speaking less and listening more overall when it comes to your client interactions.

And what about that elevator pitch? Are you plugging and playing without tailoring your pitch to each client's goals and objectives? Having a dynamic, interactive, and visually engaging sales presentation is not only differentiating, but also memorable. There are several projective techniques or "serious games" you can employ to elevate your pitch. For example, role-play the pitch with one or more colleagues, having them assume the voice of your customer or client before actually presenting it in the field.
Getting started

Whatever the forum, moderating skills are honed over time with practice and experience. The starting point is training or mentoring by a professional schooled in the art of moderating. The outcomes can be significant: richer, more meaningful research insights and information; deeper understanding of your customers and clients; greater, faster idea generation and innovation; increased team engagement; shorter, more productive meetings—all of which positively impact your bottom line. Training artful moderators will also enrich communications among professionals working in the world of life science.

Some moderator resources

  • Gray D, Brown S, Macanufo J. Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers. Sebastapol, CA: O'Reilly Media; 2010.
  • Bystedt J, Lynn S, Potts D. Moderating to the Max: A Full-tilt Guide to Creative, Insightful Focus Groups and Depth Interviews. Ithaca, NY: Paramount Market Publishing; 2010.
  • Greenbaum T. Moderating Focus Groups: A Practical Guide for Group Facilitation. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publishing; 1999.
  • Quirks Marketing Research Media. Sponsored Content: Get Them Talking: Five Innovations in Qualitative Market Research. 2013.
  • Carlon M. Empathy in Qualitative Research. [YouTube Video]. 2013.

Professional Associations

Ilana DruckerIlana Drucker

Ilana Drucker, president of Scorpio Research, specializes in conducting qualitative research and moderating studies for the life science industry. Her firm offers customized on-site or off-site moderator training programs for companies, non-profits, and private individuals.

SAMPS, Sales And Marketing Professionals in Scientific research, is the first and only organization dedicated to sales and marketing professionals within the life sciences.

The association’s goal is to serve its members who work in commercial roles for life science products and services companies and associated businesses, globally.
SAMPS was previously named ACP-LS. We feel that SAMPS more clearly describes the membership, and will form a better foundation from which to expand this membership globally. 
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